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Critical Thinking: Reevaluating the Education Model

The idea that the current education system might be failing to prepare pupils for the complexity of postmodern lives is not new. Neither is the idea that the competences that the education is prioritizing in our curriculums are not only obsolete but scarcely useful in our current context. It’s been almost 70 years since Martin Luther King stated that an “education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society” but somehow educators and students still operate in a system that pushes the latter towards standardized testing, homogene and quantitative assessment and passive excellence. Skills such as memorization, imitation and repetition have much more importance in the school performance than creativity, motivation and, of course, critical thinking.

According to Sir Ken Robinson and his book Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Tr ansforming Education, nowadays the education system worldwide is more similar to industrial manufacturing than to an actual learning environment. The main purpose of industry is to produce identical versions of an already designed product through the compliance of specific rules and standards that leave little or no space to variation, thus the similarity.

Schools have applied this industrial traits to its most inner structure: In school as in any industry results must be quantifiable, measurable and as quick and visible as possible. We don’t deal with inanimate objects but we treat and test our students as if they were, paying
little or no attention to the development of the whole person as a unique and meaningful human being with emotions and ideas to develop on his own.

Instead students are driven by curriculums which prioritize an academic ability (Robinson, 2015) defined by skills that have much more to do with memory and repetition than with actual thinking; while neglecting crucial aspects that are considered superfluous or utterly
unnecessary like creativity, emotional intelligence or critical thinking. The recent changes in education in Spain prove that this growing academic focus is real. Standardized testing is taking the lead of the education system as the number of national exams increases and the age for the students that take them lowers. Thus memorization and repetition of contents it’s a national requirement since a very young age. Meanwhile time devoted to creative subjects such as art and music is being diminished, in some cases as much as to have 45 minutes a week of each.

However, Spain is not the only country that is relying in this kind of educational model to raise its future societies, indeed it is a worldwide spread trend that answers to the necessity of transformation and adaptation to a changing world. At this point, though, we need to ask ourselves a crucial question: Is this system working?

The famous PISA results have repeatedly shown that Spain is far behind the top on education matters. Spanish students are not only among the worst countries in OECD in maths and reading comprehension but they are also scarce in “problem solving”. According to PISA spanish students have problems to understand everyday life situations such as medical prospect reading or graphic interpretation and have difficulties when they need to find alternative solutions to everyday problems.

In addition according to INE data nearly one million adults in Spain can be considered as
“functional illiterates”, meaning that they have reading and writing skills that are inadequate to manage daily living and employment tasks (Schlechty, 2001).Startlingly enough, Spain exceeds the average OECD tertiary education attainment rate surpassing countries with remarkable education quality such as Finland. Whatever we are doing is not working but now the question seems to be: what are we doing wrong?

The Pulitzer Prize Chris Hedges, wrote in his book the Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle  in 2009 that the purpose of education should be to make minds, not careers. This statement puts the focus on the main issue that education needs to face: it’s necessary to enable students to use lateral, creative and analytic thinking in order to find their own solutions to different life situations.

By utilizing activities to enhance critical thinking, students are better able to understand why something has occurred as opposed to just understanding what has occurred. (Tsai et al. 2013). They become capable of conducting thorough critical analysis and thus their reaction capacity increases dramatically.

The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to consider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in selection of criteria, focused in inquiry and persistent in seeking result. (Facione, 1990)

As educators, we have the responsibility to teach students the ‘habits of mind’ associated with making interpretive analyses and thoughtful, reasoned arguments (King and Kitchener, 1994). But it is extremely important for educators to understand that the role they play in developing critical thinking is different than the role they currently play in classical teaching.

In order to engage students in critical thinking, the educator needs to act as a facilitator to
allow for discussion and encourage a freer thought process, as well as to encourage understanding that thinking critically does not always end with a right answer, but instead
sometimes ends in more questions or differing evaluations of the topic (Halx & Reybold, 2005; Arend, 2009). Teachers of all subjects and levels need to understand how their students think, reflect and  analyze, and focus their curriculums towards the enhancement of those areas, as just then they will be succeeding in preparing their students to real and complex modern life.

However, there are limits to the implementation of critical thinking in curriculums. If learning requires effort, then critical thinking requires absolute exertion (Halx & Reybold, 2005; Arend, 2009). The effort that teachers and students need to do in order to carry out the task is enormous, and the results are much slower, irregular and inconsistent. By teaching critical thinking the individual capacity and uniqueness of the student develops and thus to standardize test him/her becomes highly challenging.

By adding critical thinking to our curriculums we might have to rethink the Education System as a whole: assessment, contents and even physical classrooms might need to be reformulated differently in order to provide a complete and effective learning context that can finally help us to overcome the education crisis once and for all.


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